The Bribery Bill, which has been introduced to modernise and consolidate UK laws on bribery and corruption, has passed its first reading in the House of Commons. The Bill is hoped to become law before this year's general election, and will create a series of specific offences which it is believed will make the UK anti-bribery regime even more stringent than its American and EU counterparts.

Both individuals (whether British citizens or who are ordinarily resident in the UK) and all UK registered commercial entities will be subject to the following potential offences:

  • a general offence of offering, promising, paying, requesting, agreeing to receive or receiving bribes, either in the UK or abroad;
  • and a specific offence of offering or paying a bribe to a foreign public official.

UK registered companies, and non-UK registered companies which carry out business in the UK, will also be subject to the separate offence of negligently failing to prevent bribery on the company's behalf, and this includes where the offence was committed by an individual acting on behalf of the company, for example an agent. In relation to offences committed by a commercial entity, "senior officers" of that entity (i.e. directors, managers, company secretaries or those at a similar level) may also be found liable if they "consent to" or "connive in" the commission of the offence. All of these offences may carry an unlimited fine both for individuals and companies involved, whilst individuals could additionally face a maximum prison sentence of 10 years.

This more serious approach to anti-bribery law has been mirrored in practice by a generally more active approach to investigations by the likes of the Serious Fraud Office and the Financial Services Authority. In September 2009, the SFO completed its first prosecution for corruption committed abroad by a UK corporation, against the bridge manufacturer Mabey & Johnson Ltd. The fine was £6.6m. A further 17 cases related to allegations of bribery and corruption are currently ongoing.

Many corporate entities have put in place a code of conduct on corruption and bribery, covering their operations both at home and abroad. Having in place adequate policies and measures to reduce the risk of such criminal behaviour will not only provide a defence against the new offence of negligently failing to prevent bribery on the company's behalf, but will also demonstrate a willingness to comply with UK legislation and may help to mitigate the damage caused by offences being committed. It is therefore more important than ever that all corporate entities are covered by an adequate anti-corruption and anti-bribery policy, and that their employees, and anyone else who acts on their behalf such as agents, are made aware of the policy and receive the appropriate training or guidance in relation to the new law.